I post this with trepidation. I am disinclined to touch on such topics here.
A few years ago, I became involved with a birding organization whose core mission of making birding more accessible deeply resonated with me. I have a severe visual disability, and so I’m familiar with barriers to birding. Joining this group brought me in contact with a variety of people, most of them quite wonderful, but also a few with an angry, victim mentality that has become common of late. I also joined Instagram for a time, in an effort to amplify the mission of the organization, thereby connecting with literally thousands of other birders. Again, mostly great people. But for every few dozen bird photos in my feed, I’d be treated to a post with an insightful observation such as “Fuck Capitalism.” I didn’t unfollow anyone, as I had a morbid curiosity to simply observe these angry young birders. Eventually it became all too dreary and I uninstalled the app.
I include this preface to provide perspective. I’ve been silent, and prefer being silent, even as those I disagree with make a great deal of noise. This essay amounts to a single chip note in response to a raucous din I’ve been hearing for years.
The American Ornithological Society (AOS) recently announced that they will remove all honorific bird names that they can assert jurisdiction over. Some might think I’d be celebrating this, as I had once published an essay opining that eponymous common names were a bad practice. The sole reason was something my wife pointed out to me thirty years ago, long before the topic became politically charged: non-descriptive monikers lack clarity. “Black-throated Green Warbler” actively helps with identification in a way that “Townsend’s Warbler” does not.
In 2021 I discovered the “Bird Names for Birds” (BN4B) effort and was initially excited. But as I read through their manifesto, it became obvious that the goal of clear nomenclature was secondary, at best. I don’t wish to be unkind, but it all felt more like grievance, resentment, and virtue signaling. I believe there are many good intentions that inform their effort, and that it comes from a good place in the hearts of young, misinformed idealists. But the postmodern nonsense that permeates it is just that; nonsense (and that is a problem that extends way beyond birding). At the core was an assumption about people they don’t know and cannot speak for: that their love for the natural world must be so weak that it can be ruined by a “barrier” consisting of the names of a few long dead explorers. I do not see how this is anything but condescending. What is more, it dilutes the meaning of the term, and demeans the very real experiences of those who have faced the real barriers of real discrimination in the field. Meanwhile, taking in the arguments for taxonomic stability and keeping the current names, I found my stance changed.
The BN4B site includes a collection of short, historical bios of selected ornithologists having honorifics. These blurbs are insightful for what they say and don’t say. One gets the impression that the authors scoured biographical sources merely to find any clue of unacceptable behavior, affiliation, or opinion, and then added the name to the list of Bad People and composed another cookie-cutter vignette. It is easy to judge the dead. They cannot defend themselves. It is also fruitless.
Reading through these pieces, a passage from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities kept coming to mind:
"Crash!—A head is held up, and the knitting-women who scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it a moment ago when it could think and speak, count One."
A few of the bios concede that certain ornithologists, such as William Swainson and Isaac Sprague, did little to warrant any venom, so they got off with a kind of guilt-by-association, tacit condemnation instead. (They also help make a case for eponyms, inadvertently, when they praise Emilie Snethlage.) There was a palpable air of forlorn disappointment when they could not dig up any real dirt on someone. But now, with the plethora of news articles with titles such as “Nearly 80 bird species names with racist roots are about to be changed,” it is clear which cubbyhole has been reserved for Sprague, and everyone else.
Allow me a digression – it will be relevant – that starts with a fascinating trivia question. Which specific historical figures have been the subjects of the most written work? Not surprisingly, Jesus Christ ranks at number one on that list. The runner-up is not unexpected either: Napoleon Bonaparte. But coming in third is a name that would not be guessed by most people, especially today, when classical music is (unfortunately) not widely appreciated: the nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner. 
Wagner utterly revolutionized music, creating operas of epic scope that have never been surpassed. His development of leitmotif, in which a melodic fragment or phrase becomes associated with a character, or object, or theme in the story, is a key reason why film scores sound as they do today. He pushed the limits of tonality to create sonic landscapes that were unimaginable at the time and which still sound otherworldly. His musical legacy will certainly accrue continuing attention from opera lovers and academics for as long as humanity endures. (He also has a character in the opera Siegfried that is a forest bird.)
But there is another reason why Wagner attracts attention from writers and commentators: he wasn’t a pleasant character. He cheated on his wives and was a notorious nationalist and antisemite, famously writing a screed against “Jewishness in music.” He died in 1883, but was celebrated by Germany’s National Socialists, and it is hard to believe that had he been alive in the 1930s, he would not have returned the adoration.
Whereas few birders know anything about the life of John Townsend, most every musician and classical music fan knows about Wagner’s dark side, and this has been the case for as long as his works have been important. It is difficult to grapple with the fact that such glorious art could have been created by a man with such monstrous ideas. The unpleasant reality is that we are paradoxical and imperfect beings. The way we respond to this fact speaks volumes about us.
Here is how the late Jewish conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein responded. He said, “I hate you Richard Wagner, but I hate you on my knees.”
(Bernstein, incidentally, is the subject of the 2023 film Maestro starring Bradley Cooper. Controversy attends this work as well, because a few individuals are angry that the Jewish conductor is being portrayed by a non-Jewish actor. Which brings to mind another fine quote from Bernstein: “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic.”)
What does this have to do with bird names? Merely a friendly suggestion to try emulating the great conductor. Perhaps with something such as, “I hate you John James Audubon, but I appreciate everything you contributed to science and art.” Gratitude is good for the soul. Resentment isn’t.
Or you can look to Maya Angelou, who absolutely got it, coming to the following realization in her childhood: “Of course Shakespeare must be a black girl.” She wasn’t looking for something to be offended by – and there is plenty to be offended by in Shakespeare, if one wishes to find it. Instead, she chose to resonate with the good, the common denominator of shared humanity, the overwhelming similarity between a young black girl and “privileged” white male.
My own ancestors were victims of a well-documented ethnic cleansing in 1755. Should I remain resentful of that? Claim victim status? Refuse to be engaged in anything connected to the culture of the perpetrators? Demand the changing of the names of cities that commemorate the victors? I don’t see why mature people should respond in such ways to long-past injustices. All human cultures, every last one of them, were “problematic” by current standards – and it is utterly fruitless to apply such standards retroactively. “Self-pity is our worst enemy,” said Helen Keller, “and if we yield to it, we can never do anything good in the world.”
I’m a moderate, a classical liberal, an environmentalist with solar panels on his roof, and I never wanted to see the culture wars brought into birding, but that is what one side has now instigated. I know of many other birders that share my perspective, including some on the AOS committees in charge of all this, who fought the changes; at least two have resigned in protest (one posted at this link). All the happy talk from AOS and eBird does not mention this. Many of us shake our heads, sensing that this will likely cause more division, not less.
More division in the field, when different people use different names for the same bird. Perhaps followed by suspicious whisperings of “Did you hear that? That guy over there said, ‘Wilson’s Warbler.’” Maybe someone will even choose to “re-educate” others on the spot. Won’t that be fun? And we are doing all this for unity?
Speaking of Wilson’s Warbler, I encourage everyone to read the biography of Alexander Wilson (such as this link; no surprise that he didn’t get a bio at BN4B). The man was a hero and an inspiration. His humble origins in Scotland included little schooling -– he largely had to educate himself, as he was put to work as a weaver at age thirteen. He had a fondness for writing poetry, but later his writings included an anti-establishment satire that would land him in jail. At age 28 he came to the USA with nothing, found no work as a weaver, and literally walked from state to state, taking various teaching jobs. His love for nature inspired him to yet catalog and depict birds, gaining time to do so in earnest only once he was in his thirties. He died in poverty at age 47. And now everyone in the birding community is expected to accept the denigration-by-association of this great man, the father of American ornithology?
“But, he might have made some racist remarks in his diaries…” Please. If he did, it would be in keeping with the sad fact that the majority of humans of every color that have ever lived have held racist ideas. To be inspired by his accomplishments, and to honor him, is not to endorse whatever unsavory ideas he might have had.
I’ll also predict that once these 80-odd species have their new monikers, the folks that started this are not going to hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner and close shop. That their bio pages go after the likes of Von der Decken and Klass indicates that the entire birding world stands in need of their correctives. Place names referencing people are also apparently “problematic.” They seem to hint that Hudsonian Godwit might be next, for example, and I can only imagine what they think of bird names involving Nashville, Louisiana, Carolina, and Virginia. Finally, I expect that they will come for the Latin eponyms. From the FAQ, emphasis mine: “BN4B is currently focused on English common bird names.” Yet the calls to upend all biological taxonomy over this hysteria are already out there (see, for example, this link), and will only grow more strident, now that there is blood in the water. I certainly hope I am wrong, but I don’t think I am.
There are critical conservation issues to be dealt with, and they probably won’t be solved without buy-in from people and entities that already view our concerns about biodiversity with a jaundiced eye. Groups like the AOS have a responsibility to make the case that serious people must do serious work to solve serious problems. But now, the birding community is not coming off as serious at all. When the likes of Jimmy Kimmel – not exactly an enemy of progressive causes – is pointing and laughing at you, you have an indication of just how insane this all looks to the rest of the world (Link – start at the 9:40 mark). Kimmel isn’t a one-off; there are plenty of others doing the same. I didn’t think it possible to further degrade the regard for scientific authority among the public, but in pursuing a nakedly political agenda, the AOS has done just that. Congratulations.
Albert Einstein once said “I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for the thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where the drilling is easy.” If we want more birds, more birders and a greater diversity of birders, and we all agree that we do, then we need to take down real barriers.
Alexander Wilson, God bless him, sure as hell isn’t a barrier. I’d say he is quite the opposite. And I bet Maya Angelou would agree with me.
 Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round, M. Owen Lee. Limelight; Reprint edition (January 1, 1994)
One of the worst things that a regressive and illiberal movement can do is assume the mantle to speak with unchallenged authority on some broad social issue. If you are tired of the forces that focus on magnifying our differences, please check out the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism at https://www.fairforall.org/
“If you must look back, do so forgivingly,” said Maya Angelou. “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For a fine essay on the importance of forgiveness in advocacy for those facing barriers, see https://nfb.org/blog/role-forgiveness-advocacy-work.